Lifting the mask
by Ingrid Soren
Ivy press, 2010
“The outward journey of the Commedia, simultaneously an interior one, took me down into a Hell that is Dante’s, mine and Everyman’s. Here he would show me the dark workings of the human psyche, projecting amazing imagery on to my mind…”
Described by John Ruskin in the epigraph for this book as ‘The central man of all the world‘, Dante was indeed just that in his achievement of his great poem, which he depicted as ‘the poem of the cosmos’ – because EVERYTHING is in The Divine Comedy, a complete biological and anthropological reworking of the human inner-system. Dante was the cosmos when writing this epic poem, his own skull a celestial landscape, his nerve-endings the cables first used to spark a universe, his heart still now a comet racing through the solar system that God has yet to finish. So how to write a book to depict the great soul-felt and systematic evolvement of all the senses required of Dante to imagine this poem? Well, by attempting to humanize Dante and to take us by the shadow of his hand back through the streets and alleyways of Verona and Florence, as well as other places that he inhabited.
To write this intricately beautiful book, Ingrid Soren traipsed the pathways of Italy that Dante himself took, seeking out those imaginative clefts and fissures of Florence and beyond which Dante’s voice carved, until finding the image of Dante’s death-mask upon a fresco in a medieval church; there, Ingrid Soren lifted this face as if a mask to her own to see the poem through his eyes.
Ostensibly, Meeting Dante narrates a journey which leads us to love, both Dante’s for Beatrice and Ingrid Soren’s for Dante’s great poem. But the author also interweaves the text with the story of her own great love, very much human, obdurate and unfulfilled – yet like Dante’s love for Beatrice, it is a love, when experienced (by any of us), that seems to turn back anthropology, theology and humanity onto the earthly sundial, as if being truly felt for the first time.
Of course the love that Dante wrote so breathtakingly about, from Inferno to Paradiso, was the love that forced God to injure his own son eternally with thorns and the love of sacrifice; the love that needs not the church, the mosque or the temple, but that which forces man to take off the headphones of History to hear his own cry upon the cross. The day Dante met the beautiful young Beatrice, he glimpsed at once the outlines of a world beyond, through the diaphanous heavenly veils of her flesh. Thus, The Divine Comedy is the poem to end all poems, the poem that if heard by the apostles might even have persuaded them to follow both Dante and Christ.
Ingrid Soren’s writing is effortlessly wrought and knowing (as is also shown by a bibliography of more than forty books), but without ever forcing the reader to suffer the soul-ache of academia, for it is her passion for this poem that shines through, as well as her extensive knowledge of Dante’s life and times – so exemplary as to persuade the reader to pick up the original poem at once; for scholars of Dante have too often put off the casual reader, as The Divine Comedy is probably the most demanding poem in the history of literature and certainly the best. Ingrid Soren’s book interlaces and shuttles the thread of Dante’s great poem until the reader is lifted into the imaginative post-theological empyrean that the poet himself envisioned; this book is so important for the future of a Dante’s readership that it should be placed immediately in every university and library in the country, and probably the world. Buy it.
Paul Stubbs, May 2010